Three decades after its founding, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics now sees the college sports world embarking on the “transformational change” it has long advocated for. The change just happens to be driven by an issue the commission has been reluctant to support: college athletes profiting while playing.
This paradox finds the Knight Commission scrambling to establish credibility on athlete rights while being criticized by player advocates as, at best, ineffectual, and at worst, a fig leaf for the financially exploitative status quo.
“I don’t even consider the Knight Commission a reform organization,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, which was instrumental in crafting California’s pioneering name, image and likeness bill. “To me, a reform organization goes and fights. I have always considered the Knight Commission a think tank… a shadow of the NCAA.”
Amy Privette Perko, the KCIA’s leader since 2005, acknowledges her organization has commingled with NCAA directors, for strategic purposes, but insists on the commission’s independence and relevance in this new age of athlete activism.
In an interview, Perko touted the Knight Commission’s December report, which called for FBS football to be split off into its own governance structure distinct from the rest of college sports. The proposal drew a public rebuke from NCAA president Mark Emmert, even though Perko says it was meant, in no small part, to protect the NCAA from the current “dysfunction” within Division I.
Describing the recommendations as “very bold,” Perko said, “In the past, the commission’s proposals have tried to address change through changing NCAA policy, and the big difference with our 2020 proposal… was basically acknowledging that the current structure doesn’t work and needs to change.”
But other reformers aren’t so impressed.
Jeremy Bloom, the former college football player and Olympic skier who sued the NCAA in 2002 over its outside-income restrictions on athletes, sees the commission as “well-intentioned” but misguided, having clung for too long to the idea that meaningful change could come from within college sports’ power structure.
“It was a fantasy and a fallacy,” said Bloom. “It was never going to happen. Why? Because the economic model they have employed since 1906 is so advantageous to everybody inside the NCAA that nobody on their own accord was going to change it.”
Huma takes a harsher view, arguing that the commission, with its fundamental opposition to athletes sharing in college sports’ revenue, “helped to cement injustices,” specifically against black athletes, who make up the majority of roster spots in the revenue-generating D-I sports.
“It would be one thing if they ignored the issue, but as an organization they are on the wrong side of the issue,” said Huma, a former football player at UCLA.
To that end, Huma said a proposal the Knight Commission released in May to create racial equity for black college athletes “rang hollow,” even though it argued that NIL rights would likely have the greatest financial impact for those sports with the greatest percentages of black athletes.
With its efficacy doubted and philosophy challenged, the Knight Commission’s reformer-critics still acknowledge the organization possesses two things—money and name recognition—that carry weight. The commission is currently co-chaired by Arne Duncan, the former U.S. secretary of education during the Obama administration, and its board includes a phalanx of influential university administrators, past and present, as well as former corporate and professional sports executives, such as ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
“Our strength is really in having diverse experiences as well as diverse ideas about college sports and its operation,” said Perko.
What the Knight Commission board is not known for having are members who could be remotely described as NCAA critics. Rather, it has relied on those like Carol Cartwright, the former president of Bowling Green, who, until this past December, served simultaneously as the commission’s co-chair and a member of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions—the entity that punishes transgressions of the governing body’s much-maligned rulebook.
“It does help in terms of promoting the proposals that we put forward,” Perko says of its board members’ NCAA ties, “because we are operating from an informed position as long as, when all our members come to our commission meetings, they are putting on their hat of independence.”
In 2008, Bloom was among a group of former college athletes who appeared before the Knight Commission to discuss the commercialization of college athletes in fantasy sports and new media. Bloom, who played football at Colorado after becoming the youngest freestyle skier to make the U.S. Olympic squad, had previously sued the NCAA over rules prohibiting him from earning Olympic-related endorsement money while playing in college.
“It’s time as people and fans that we remove ourselves from the rock we have been living under and accept the fact that college athletics is not amateur anymore,” Bloom told the commission in his testimony.
Instead, the commission announced it would spend a year examining the finances of college sports, commencing with the release of a report that claimed the lion’s share of athletic departments were in the red, with swelling annual deficits. The commission has continued to beat the unprofitability drum, propagated by the NCAA, that most institutions are in the red, a point that a number of sports economists and athlete rights advocates find insidious.
“To me, that is the one expressly negative thing that the Knight Commission has done in terms of [fostering] a fruitful conversation surrounding college sports,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a sports media professor at Ithaca College who has studied the market value of college football and men’s basketball athletes. “Why do you keep harping on fact these nonprofit entities are not reporting profits? Of course they are going to be redirecting money elsewhere or excessively spending.”
Staurowsky continued: “Whose interest is the Knight Commission serving? Are they an external entity that just helps the NCAA achieve its goals anyway?”
When, in 2009, Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA and video game maker EA Sports, the Knight Commission decided to hold its tongue as the case wended through the courts over the next seven years.
“During the time that the O’Bannon litigation was going on, it was pretty clear from talking with individuals that the decisionmakers were not going to change anything while the litigation was ongoing, so once there was a ruling, that was when we pushed forward,” said Perko.
Perko notes that in 2010, the Knight Commission did a report, “Restoring the Balance,” that advocated against the NCAA licensing video games that included the avatars of real college athletes. But that report, which spoke of “treating college athletes as students first and foremost—not as professionals,” and the Knight Commission’s subsequent work, continued to avoid advocating for college athlete NIL rights.
At the conclusion of the O’Bannon trial in 2016, the KCIA commissioned Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, to write a white paper addressing how NIL could be adopted by the NCAA. Feldman concluded that “non-game related NIL restrictions are unnecessary to the NCAA’s core goals and may actually be counterproductive.”
Even then, the commission could not support Feldman’s recommendation that the NCAA narrow its definition of amateurism to allow college athletes to sign third-party endorsement deals. Finally, last April, roughly seven months after California signed its NIL bill into law, the Knight Commission made its first recommendation that college athletes be allowed to earn money from their right of publicity.
“Clearly there were others pushing for that type of outcome before the Knight Commission pushed for that type of outcome,” said Perko, “but we have been asking questions about the fairness of the policies around NIL as early as 2008.”
The Knight Commission is not its own separate nonprofit, but instead a program under the Knight Foundation, the $2.4 billion philanthropic organization funded by the estates of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain patriarchs. In 1989, the foundation’s then-president, Creed Black, a former publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader, saw to it that the foundation allocate $2 million to seed a blue-ribbon commission dedicated to investigating the self-destructive excesses of college sports.
(Asked about its current funding, Perko declined to disclose any details.)
Just a few years earlier, the Herald-Leader won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories, “Playing Above the Rules,” that uncovered payments by boosters to Kentucky basketball players, in violation of NCAA rules. The philosophical underpinnings of that reporting—that impermissible benefits are a matter of public concern—set the north star for the Knight Commission, which has, throughout its existence, defended amateurism as essential to the “public trust” that is college sports.
Dave Ridpath, a sports management professor at Ohio who has twice testified before the Knight Commission, said the organization started out with a “bang,” with its proposed “one-plus-three” model, later adopted by the NCAA, which put academic integrity, financial integrity and independent certification of athletics under the control of university presidents. Still, there were early criticisms that the organization was too timorous to take on a system with deep, structural flaws.
After the commission released its landmark 1991 report, “Keeping Faith with the Student Athlete,” the Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley pooh-poohed it as a “consummately politic document” that refused to “challenge any of the underlying assumptions of intercollegiate sport.”
Former apparel executive Sonny Vaccaro, whose combative testimony in a 2001 Knight Commission hearing foreshadowed his eventual transition to athlete advocacy, echoed a similar sentiment in an interview last week.
“I don’t think they wanted to hurt what they love,” Vaccaro told Sportico. “And the best way to do it is to just have another meeting.”
Perko challenges this characterization of institutional idleness, pointing to the history of changes that have been adopted by the NCAA—especially those that enforce higher academic standards—as evidence that the Knight Commission has had a significant impact. She also thinks that while her organization may have been late to the party of formally prescribing college athlete NIL rights, the discussions it convened over the last 13 years were instrumental in bringing this reform to bear.
Aside from that issue, Perko says the Knight Commission will prioritize pressing its agenda of segregating FBS football, seeing this as essential to preserving the NCAA and amateur college sports. Given the current trends in public opinion and the recent Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Alston, the fact that it continues to pursue these aims may redefine the Knight Commission as the one thing it has never been: radical.
(Note: A previous version of this story included a quote that erroneously stated the Knight Commission’s December study did not mention college athlete compensation.)